Racism and Democracy

Racism and Democracy


– Welcome. Welcome to The Graduate Center. I’m Jim Muyskens, I’m Interim President here. Public programs at The Graduate Center focus on some of the most
critical issues of our time, and some of the most fascinating people, including famed biographer
Robert Caro in a previous, and in previous seasons writer Roxane Gay and artist Ai Weiwei. Our programs gather leading
figured to CUNY and beyond, like our guest tonight, whose expertise puts you at
the center of the discussion. After tonight’s discussion, we invite you to stay for some
wine and cheese over here, and to have some time to
continue the conversation with each other. I’m proud to introduce tonight’s program; a program on racism and democracy. This is part of The Graduate
Center’s two year project called “The Promise and
Perils of Democracy.” I wanna thank the Carnegie
Corporation of New York for underwriting this timely
and significant project. I’m also pleased to welcome
a group of undergraduates from throughout CUNY system who are part of this project as leadership and democracy
fellows this year. Raise your hands. (all applauding) Thank you. Great to have you here. We launched “The Promise and
Perils of Democracy” last year, by studying the foundations of democracy, from the importance of free press, to the role of the judiciary. This fall, we’re turning to examine
the threats to democracy. Among the challenges we see right now are the growth and wealth in equality, a topic that we tackled last night, and tonight, how democracy
can survive as racism grows. We want to understand how
racism has impaired democracy throughout our history. Are things different now? How have we been able to fight racism and win victories for democracy? How did we get to our present moment? How do we move forward? We have lots of questions and an extraordinary panel to help us sort though and seek
answers to these questions. So let me introduce the panelists. Jelani Cobb brings to
the panel his perspective as a historian and journalist. He is currently a staff
writer for “The New Yorker,” and the Ira A. Lipman
Professor of Journalism at Colombia University
School of Journalism. His columns and books
explore a range of interests, including race, politics,
history, and culture. He’s the author of “The Substance of Hope: “Barack Obama and the
Paradox of Progress,” and “To the Break of Dawn: “A Freestyle on Hip Hop Aesthetic.” Jessie Daniels is Professor of
Sociology at Hunter College, and here at The Graduate Center. She is an internationally
recognized expert on digital technology and racism, whose career has combined scholarship with work in the Internet industry. Her books include “Cyber
Racism” and “White Lies,” and she also co-edits the
book “Digital Sociologies” about race and the varieties of media. Since 2007, Daniels has
maintained a scholarly blog, racismreview.com, which regularly gets 200,000
unique visitors each month. “Forbes Magazine” has called her one of the 20 inspiring
women to follow on Twitter. Mary Hooks is co-Director
and Field Organizer for Southerners on New Ground, or SONG, a multi-issue southern justice movement, that is affiliated with the
movement for black lives, and the national bail out collective. Hooks has been one of the key organizers in the collective’s Mama’s Day Bail Outs, which raises bail so that
incarcerated black women throughout the United States can spend Mother’s Day
with their families. Activism that has
highlighted the movement, and ended cash bail and
pre-trail detention. And Bitta Mostofis, Mostofisi,
an immigration attorney, sorry I missed your name, is New York City’s Commissioner from the Mayor’s Office
of Immigrant Affairs. She has played a central role in the development of
major city initiatives, such as Action NYC, the city’s free and confidential
immigration legal services. She has said that helping
to implement these policies has been an incredible opportunity to make New York City the
most immigrant inclusive city in America. The moderator for tonight’s
panel is celebrated educator, author, speaker, consultant, and mentor, Johnnetta Betsch Cole. President of Spelman
College and Bennett College, the first black woman to lead Spelman, and the only person to serve as President of both the two
historically black colleges in the United States. Director of the Smithsonian
National Museum of African Art, consultant to business and academia, and currently the chair
and seventh president of the National Council of Negro Women, an advocacy group organization for women’s rights and civil rights. Her leadership has truly placed her in the center of our ongoing
national conversation about race and justice. It also placed her at CUNY. She was a Professor of
Anthropology at Hunter College, and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. And as it happens, I was at Hunter at the same time, as Associate Provost. And the current Provost,
Tilden LeMelle, and I, our favorite was when Johnnetta
would come to our office and regale us with fun stories, and provocative ideas.
(audience laughing) So it’s delightful to
welcome you back here. I just wanna conclude my
remarks and my introductions by saying what Johnnetta said, which is so important is, “When we,” she’s obviously
an advocate for women. “When we, women, are the first, “we have to be committed to
making sure we’re not the last.” And with that, she’s
been a mentor to many, I’m sure many in this room. So now I’m honored to welcome all of you, and turn the program over to Johnnetta. (all applauding) – My sisters, my
brothers, my siblings all. I’m going to ask, if you
can stand, please do. If not, remain comfortably seated. I’ve asked you to stand
so that you can join me in paying a very brief tribute to Congressman Elijah Cummings. It’s especially appropriate
that we do so tonight, because brother Congressman Cummings persistently stood up, and spoke out, against racism, which he saw as a mighty deterrent to America living up to
her claim as a democracy. The son of sharecroppers, Elijah Cummings graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Howard University. He went on to become the first
African American in Maryland to be named Speaker Pro Tem, and then he represented
Maryland’s Seventh District as a member of the United
States House of Representatives. Our brother, Elijah Cummings, was the moral compass
of Maryland politics, and the conscience of Congress. He was a model of fortitude when confronted with malice, including when it came from high quarters. In tribute to him, I offer this African saying: As long as a person’s name is called, that person never dies. Join me in continuing to call the name of Congressman Elijah Cummings. Thank you. (audience applauding) I’m gonna pull up a little bit, just so we are a little more in a… Thank you Mary! So we’re a little more in a circle to launch our conversation. Clearly this country was founded on a stated commitment to democracy. At the same time that the
founding fathers participated in the enslavement of black women, black men, and black children. And as we all know throughout
the history of America, down to this very day, a stated (clearing throat)
commitment to democracy has coexisted with racism. What is your take on this contradiction? And I’ll even slip in, can you even imagine a day when democracy would be
a reality in America? (audience laughing) – It’s been nice, I’ll see you all later. I have to go home.
(audience laughing) – [Johnnetta] Jelani. – So one, thank you for
that tribute to our brother, Congressman Elijah Cummings. Two, I think that there
are some key things. I’m a historian, so I think about things
in a particular context. And the first is that American democracy, to the extent that we
can refer to such a thing as American democracy, is younger than the American Constitution. The time that the society was conceived, that the Constitution was created, was not a democracy. We could say the American
democracy begins, at its earliest, maybe with the 14th amendment. Certainly not until the 19th amendment. Reasonably make the argument not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act. But whatever metric we use, when we are looking at 1787, that is not the beginning,
not the birthplace. 1776, that is not the birthplace of what we know of as democracy. Not only that, the parameters by which
American democracy is curtailed neatly align with the parameters of race in American social life. That our means of understanding how this country came to existence is constantly informed
by the dynamic of race. In the Constitution, in the
Declaration of Independence, we begin at the outset with these ideals that are supposedly supposed to create the freest society that has ever existed. This minor issue of needing
to commit a genocide in order to get the land
to build that society, and needing to import millions of laborers from Africa against their will to provide the material
foundation of that society; that’s our beginning place. The founding documents
enshrine protections for the Transatlantic Slave Trade, for the Electoral College, which was designed to
skew the political power of these slave-holding
states in the south, for fugitive slaves; so if you are an enslaved person who was fortunate enough to
find your way to freedom, this founding document of American freedom mandates that you be returned to bondage. Those are our beginnings. But these states that we
now occupy on this land, they are tied to, time-and-time again, tied to the doctrine
of racial superiority. California can’t come
into the union until 1850 unless there is a strengthened
Fugitive Slave Clause, that Missouri… I was in Maine and spoke, I did a speech, a talk in Maine, I got there and it was, you know, people were very polite, and I mentioned your
whole state only exists because of racism. And people were like, “Well wait, what?” And I was like, “Yeah, you remember
that compromise in 1820, “when Missouri wanted to enter the union, “and Missouri was gonna be a slave state “that would tip the balance, “so they just created another
state up here to balance it? “The only reason that you all are here, “that you have your two Senators, “your Congresspeople: racism.” I left Maine, went to Florida. Told the people in Florida what I had said to the people in Maine, and they were like,
“Ooh, that’s terrible.” And I was like, “How do you
think y’all got in the union?” (audience laughing) “In 1819 when Andrew
Jackson marched into Florida “to seize that territory from Spain, “because Spain was not
returning fugitive slaves, “he did this at the
behest of slave holders “in Georgia and South Carolina “who were worried about
losing their property.” We can walk through the
physical makeup of this country, and again and again and again we find ourselves confounded
by this issue of race. And so, to answer your question
as succinctly as possible, and I know it’s already
too late to be succinct, but to answer your question
as truthfully as possible, I think the extent to which we have experienced
democracy in this country maps precisely to the extent
to which subordinated people have refused to give
in to the circumstances that they were living in
at that particular moment. – Whether you are, whoa. Whether you are ready or not, it just seems to me, my sister Mary, that is a perfect point for you as a seasoned, righteous activist, to say how you’re looking at this. – Yeah, I have a lot of opinions, a lot of opinions about this. And I think just the on-its-face
response to your question is no. And it’s not because,
actually, I don’t even qualify, unapologetically, my answer is no. I do not and cannot imagine an America that actually practiced what it preaches. And I would be a fool
to look at the receipts of what America has done, and to calculate otherwise. But what I am interested in is the, I believe in the hope of the
people who are on this land, and I believe in the democracy
that was once practiced here by Indigenous people on this land. And that I believe in. And that, I believe that Indigenous folks, black and brown people, and not all, obviously, we know some black folk who
weren’t about that life. But those who value democracy, values folk’s human rights, value mother earth and wanted
to be in right relationship with the land. I feel like that’s where
I can see possibilities of democracy actually taking shape. And it gets a little more complicated when I think about what
is it going to take to essentially move the
empire out of the way, so that real democracy can be manifested. And I feel like that’s the struggle that we have to figure out, you know? And so yeah, when we
have moments like this in a time where folk’s material conditions have been messed up. This administration, and previous, Obama and all, have had severe
consequences on our people. And as an organizer, it’s really tough to go door-to-door and talk to everyday people about exercising their ability to vote, why they should even be engaged; we know voting is just one tactic. Like, why they should engage in a way when what we have, and when what we see is actually not something that
many of us don’t believe in. But I feel like our job, as organizers, is to actually give people, and inspire hope in people
to believe in themselves, believe in the person next to them, believe that our lives are connected; that we have a shared destiny. If you die they come for you, they’re coming for us too, and so we have a
responsibility to struggle, to advance democracy, even in the way in which we
organize our daily practices. One of my comrades said the other day, and it was like beautiful, ’cause I’m always like, “The revolution!” And she’s like, “And
let’s remind ourselves “that the revolution happens,”
Key Jackson said this. “That the revolution happens every day, “a thousand small decisions at a time.” And so how we be, how we govern, what we do in this now will determine how far
we’re willing to, you know, do what must be done for real democracy to exist. (audience applauding) – Bitta, in many ways
you too are an activist. Different site, perhaps,
than where Mary is. But you’re an activist in the interests of women
and men and children who come to this country as immigrants. How do you see this contradiction between democracy as a stated goal, and everyday practices, especially in this climate? – So thank you for the question, and certainly for having me. I’m gonna start from a place
of personal experience, which is to say my family is a family of immigrants from Iran. And my parents came here,
we came here in 1979, immediately following
the Iranian Revolution. And every child of an
Iranian parent will tell you that one of the first lessons that you’re sat down and taught is about the overthrow of the democratically elected
Prime Minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh. And that overthrow, that coup, was perpetrated by the United
States and the United Kingdom. And they will talk to you about this, because that revolution is very recent, the recency of it, the wounds, they’re fresh. And they come from a place
of having people seeing, the people having seen the
promised land of democracy with the election of Mosaddegh, and a leader that
championed true democracy, nationalization of oil in the country, and that precipitating the coup, the appointment of a
dictatorship under the shah, and then eventual revolution that many didn’t ultimately
agree with the outcome of, and a human rights fight
that continues to this day with many in the country. And it is within that spirit that certainly I was raised
as the daughter of immigrants in this country, and a recognition both of the opportunity that America provided us and our family, but also that there was
inherent contradiction in that opportunity, given the history that
was so deeply personal. And obviously in immigration
history and context on its own, that is true and real and
written in the law, right? From who was allowed to immigrate to things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, to Japanese internment, to most recently special registration, and now what we have
being a fundamental attack on all things asylum, family immigration; really, if you’re not wealthy
and white we don’t want you, is the take of the Trump administration. So I think what’s
interesting about immigration in this conversation
about race and democracy is I think there’s
actually an inherent debate within the immigrant rights movement; old guard, new guard. Young people saying, “Race
is important and essential. “It is a big part of why we
have failed as a movement “to realize comprehensive
immigration reform, “that we haven’t addressed it head-on, “we haven’t tackled it, we
haven’t talked about it.” Old guards saying, “No, no, no. “It’s not about race. “Don’t make it about race. “‘Cause if you make it about race, “you’re gonna make it harder
to realize immigration reform.” And there’s a really interesting debate wherever you sit (laughing), that’s happening right now on this. But fundamentally what
I think we fail to do if we don’t recognize
the importance of race within any fight towards
immigration reform, or just fair, equitable
immigration system, is that we leave behind a whole intersectionality
of movements, communities, people, and the bigger fight
for justice in this country. And the reality of how our policies, be it foreign or domestic play out, impact immigrants in
so many different ways, and in so many different, from polling to not. And I’m gonna give, in this climate, two quick examples that
I think are important. Census, right? We know census is historically, has left black and brown communities sort of out of full
enumeration and counting. When we look at New York City’s
census returns from 2010, it’s actually not the
immigrant communities that were undercounted, it’s black and brown communities
that were undercounted. So you have really low
counts in East Brooklyn, really great counts in Washington Heights and in some parts of Queens, where you have dense
immigrant communities. And so part of what
we’ve been trying to do at this moment in time is
understand that return; why is that? And so much of that is
the deep rooted nature of racism in this country, and how that played out, whereas newer immigrant populations, who have established
organized institutions organized around the census
and got complete counts, got some of the highest
returns in the entire city in the census in 2010. So with the inclusion of
a citizenship question, thankfully, it won’t be
included thanks to litigation, that intentionality behind that is, immigrants, you also retreat, right? You also become invisible, go into the shadows, be
afraid, don’t participate. It is one of the few
exercises that somebody, regardless of status, can take, under the Constitution in
this country, to get counted. To have their economic
output realize real return in terms of education, health, and other infrastructure across the city. Real representation,
even if they cannot vote, but in the city. So that is one very clear
and palatable example of where they’re very
explicitly trying to ensure that immigrant communities
are not counted, that they’re not engaged,
that they are fearful, and they’re not owning their
own voices and visibility. So our job, I do believe I’m
an activist and an organizer, is to ensure that doesn’t happen. Is to ensure that our
communities are counted. Is to ensure that people
have good information and can make empowered choice. That the city is not making
choices for communities, but communities have good
information, know their rights, can make choices, for themselves, and exercise their civic duty
should they choose to or not. – Well Mary, Jelani, Bitta, you put so much on our table. And we can come back and take
issues off and discuss them. But sister Jessie, I wanna ask you to at least
weigh in on my first question. – Sure. I just, thank you so much
for having me on this panel, and it’s hard to follow such
esteemed colleagues here. I don’t believe there’s
democracy in the US, and there hasn’t been ever, for all the reasons that have
been articulated here already. And I think the other thing to name in this discussion about
racism and democracy, is the power that’s been given
in this society to whiteness. So part of the way that the
legislation has been written throughout the history of the Constitution and though Supreme Court decisions, is that you have to be white
in order to be a citizen, in order to exercise the franchise, in order to exercise your right to vote. And there’s a long history of that that I talk about in my sociology classes. And I think that there
are many ways that, today, we are not aware of that in a sort of palpable way that blinds us, that obscures what’s happening right now. And I think that that
history of having to be white in order to vote is connected to the long
history of white supremacy that’s shaped this country
from the very beginning. And I think that the lack of recognition of the role that whiteness
and white supremacy have played in democracy has led us to be easily
fooled by innovation, by innovation from Silicon Valley that tried to tell us that the Internet was going to be a democratizing force. And yet, the people who were
creating those innovations didn’t think about white
supremacy (chuckling) as they were creating these innovations. And now, those very platforms, that very technology that
said it was gonna help us be a better democracy, are in fact the very
weapons and the very tools that white supremacists are
using to further their cause, to shut down democracy, to keep people from voting, to keep people from
participating in the census, to erase the knowledge about history. I mean, one of the
things that I think about with the passing of
Representative Cummings is the way that that history is being lost with each of the members of
the Civil Rights generation who pass away. And when those people
with that lived experience of the Civil Rights Movement, and fighting for democracy
in that effort have passed, what do we have left to
tell us about that history? Well, we have the Internet. And the epistemology, if
you will, of the Internet, that way of knowing about that history of civil rights and democracy, I think is a battleground, and we have to do better
about fighting for it. – I’m going to invite each of you to come back in on this conversation, before I move us in another direction. Because there’s just so much
on this table at this moment. Anyone wanna come back in? – I’ll add one other thing about, in terms of the threats to democracy. One of the things that’s disturbed me has been the complete ineptitude
of American institutions at recognizing just how dangerous the moment we are in really is. I mean, you see things
like “The New York Times” writing the Nazi next door piece, or the headline which talked
about Trump urging unity after El Paso. But make no mention of the fact that he had stoked many of the tensions that lead to things like mass shootings directed at Latinos. And going on to, Sean Spicer
is on “Dancing With the Stars.” I mean, I understand there
is a tolerance in saying, “Someone who views the world
differently from me politically “should be able to be on
entertainment and so on.” But they actually believe that a person as mendacious as him, who is aiding the erosion
of American democracy, that that person should be able to get up and do the rumba on national television, and we should be entertained by that. And one of the reasons I think, I was talking with an
editor at a very public, prominent publication about this. One of the reasons, I think, that people are able to have
this kind of lax mentality, is that they believe a
version of American history, which is boiled down to some
highly oversimplified ideas, that American history looks like this: As time goes this way, American
progress goes this way. That we start out good, and just have ascended to phenomenal. (audience laughing) And I don’t know what
adjective comes after that, but that’s just always
just around the corner. You can indulge that kind of idea, if you don’t actually engage
with what American history is. And so I said to this editor
at “The New York Times,” who is a white man, who comes from a fairly
comfortable background, I said, “When you look at this, you go, “‘Hmm, interesting, economic
anxiety, populism.'” I said, “When I look at this, I think, “‘My father had a third grade education, “‘because these segregated
schools in Georgia “‘would not allow him to go any further. “‘I have a doctorate degree. “‘I am looking at people
whose agenda is to make sure “‘that the next generation of my family “‘has a third grade education too.'” And I think that that is like, that explains the vast disparity between how some of us look at what’s happening with Trumpism, and how others of us look at it, which is just a kind of
novelty or curiosity. (all applauding) – [Johnnetta] Jessie? – Yeah, I absolutely agree
with what Jelani is saying. And the thing that I’ve
taken to saying lately is that whiteness is a filter bubble. And I think there are ways in which, if you have grown up in
the bubble of whiteness, you are immune form having to look at the actual history of this country, and understand the disparate effect of it, and you get to believe in myths, like American exceptionalism; that this country is a city set on a hill, like we are just so fabulous. And part of what I have (deeply
sighing) come to appreciate, and I say that dripping with bitter irony, come to appreciate
about the 2016 election, is that it’s punctured
that bubble just a little. And I think there are ways
in which some white people are beginning to understand that they had existed in this bubble, and now they’re beginning
to question the assumptions that built that bubble around them. And so I think that, to the extent that those
of us who are in this room and are thinking about these issues around racism and democracy can continue to point
out the inconsistencies, and the reality outside of that bubble, I think it advances the cause
of freedom, or liberation, or whatever we wanna call it. – [Johnnetta] Mary? – Yeah, yeah. Y’all just had some
really good stuff here, so I’m just gonna add a few
thoughts that came to mind. When you gave the example
around the splintering of the immigration movement, you know, generational split there. And I think there’s something to that, and I think that if you, this is my read, when I look at even how
there is a “splintering,” quote unquote. But there is a disconnect between younger people and movements, previous black liberation movements; specifically the Civil Rights Movement. And I think what I feel
is the hope and like, “Yes young people, yes.” Because young people are the
spear of any movement, right? And so if young people
have clocked the hypocrisy. If young people have clocked that look, history has told us that we are trying to advance
a democracy that is a lie, and that we are trying to
assimilate into a country that has never wanted us, then we should be thinking about the ways we engage our enemy in a different way. And you know, and folks, I’m saying folks because I’m sometimes
really horrible at names. But when people talk about, we can’t win this fight though a moral, like our enemy has no
moral compass, you know? And so I think that makes
it severely challenging in a time where, in my mind, again, as much as we fight to change the material
conditions of our people, this is very much a spiritual fight. And the ways in which white
supremacy has, literally, sucked the life off, the light. The life off of, there we go, has had damaging effects in a way that I think we have to, you know, I know we’re grappling with like, how do we wake up the
political imagination of people to have a will to fight? To be mad enough at this? And one of the huge barriers to that, in addition to this fake democracy, in addition to racism, but we also have to grapple
with racialized capitalism. And I think a lot of the complacency, and folk not willing to engage, is because many of us like our microwaves, and we like the comfort
of just some of the things that we’re able to do under
this capitalist system. And we have to be honest about, we’re clear about what the
1% wants and doesn’t want, but I don’t think we’re all the way clear about what the 99% wants, and is willing to give up and sacrifice, you know, in order to be and
do and transform ourselves, in order to save ourselves for what mother earths have to offer us. As the climate folk was saying, the next to 10-12 years,
we’re all outta here, so we got some work to do. But it’s decision-making time, in terms of how we think not
just about advance in democracy and bursting the bubble around racism, but we have to call into
question capitalism. The very values of capitalism necessitates that we stay in isolation. It necessitates that we
believe in mediocrity, and that we are about the individual, and that I shouldn’t have to care about what’s happening to
that community over there, ’cause it doesn’t concern me. And so I think that we have
a challenge ahead of us that also has to, yeah, think about how we dismantle this stage of neoliberal capitalism; racialized neoliberal capitalism. (audience applauding) – [Johnnetta] Sure, come on in. – Yeah. I’ll add just a couple of things in response to kinda both
of these great points. On the capitalism side, I mean, in the immigration
debate, 1000%, right? I’m perfectly comfortable having an undocumented person
pick my fruit and my food. I don’t have to be a part of that, right? I don’t have to see it, I
don’t have to witness it. It’s not immediately in my face. And so as long as it
kind of meets my needs and I get my organic
strawberries, I’m good, right? We don’t have to address those issues. And so we know that part of the reason that we have not seen true solutions, if you will, if those
are out there for us, on the immigration side, or pathways to citizenship
for our labor force, is because it’s cheap labor force, right? It is cheap, and we know
that in New York City, that the economic disparity
for undocumented immigrants versus even those who
have temporary status or now are naturalized citizens, is dramatic. Yet their labor force is
higher than anybody’s. So that’s playing out
right here in our city. And everybody, the 1%
certainly, but everybody, is benefiting off of that labor. Additionally, I think, in the same sort of way
that you articulated, that we sort of normalize, even the succession of people that leave this administration, but have defended it
while they’re in office. With Kirstjen Nielsen now trying to sort of whitewash family separation, and she’s getting honors and recognitions. Excuse me, what, right? In what context is somebody able, not even, you’re not
talking about a decade later where maybe she’s
reformed to come to Jesus, or whatever it is. You’re literally, she just left! She separated 5,000
children from their parents, and that’s already happening. So it’s a part of this
sort of systematic effort to normalize what’s happening, and to make us complacent, ’cause we’re getting our
organic strawberries. – Yeah, and.
(audience applauding) Just a really quick second. I think it’s like, what people are doing is conflating this, like they’re just policy differences. Like, “Well, you know, “I believe in the size of the
government should be this. “And you believe the size of
government should be that.” Or, “I believe in charter schools “and you don’t believe
in charter schools.” Like, there are these conversations that people can have
legitimate debate about. And then all of a sudden we inject, we can steal your kids. We can take newborns and incarcerate them. And we’re pretending as if
that’s the same conversation. And it’s the kind of, or what I’ve been calling a kind of imminent domain of whiteness that has taken root in this era, that says that we are whatever it is that we deem to be right is within the parameters of rationality, we can just say this. All these other people
who are people of color, who are saying, “We’re
objecting from the sidelines.” I can tell you conversations,
talk to me after, about what was happening with us in media, people of color, women, who were like, “Look, this
is not economic anxiety, “this is not what this is.” And people were accusing us of being like, if all you have is a hammer, you think everything is a nail. She was like, “Oh,
you’re right about race, “you think everything’s racial.” And then Charlottesville happens. And we’re like, “Well yeah.” Everybody’s like, “Holy expletive. “What’s going on here?” And they’re beating a path
over to those parts of campuses that they used to ignore; you know, the Women’s Studies Departments, and the Ethnic Studies Departments. All of a sudden people
wanna go to those places. But can you explain what’s going on here? – I’m going to remind us, that for the last couple of days, there have been some interrogations
going on in Congress, and that Mark Zuckerman, Zuckerberg, excuse me, has been, do we use the word testifying? ‘Cause out of my tradition,
(audience laughing) there’s a certain meaning
to testifying, all right? So Jessie, lead us into a discussion now about what this contradiction between stated valuing of democracy, and everyday racism means, when we’ve gone from the
printed page to a digital age. This is your thing. – Yeah, I think about this a lot. Where to begin and how to
do this quickly (chuckling). Yeah, in the mid-to-late 1990s, when the popular Internet
was just beginning. Before that there was the Internet, and some of you, I’m
looking around the crowd, some of you are old
enough to remember that, where you went down into
a basement somewhere and logged onto something called Gopher, and you could get email that way. But the ’90s is when we got browsers, so that kinda everybody
could go on the Internet. And it was at that time that
there was a philosopher, and sometimes lyricist
for the Grateful Dead named John Perry Barlow, who wrote something called “The Declaration of
Independence of Cyberspace.” And in that, he was
talking about the Internet as a destination, as a place that you could go. And he also wrote about it as a frontier. And so he sort of reinscribed
that manifest destiny rhetoric onto the Internet. And during that time, people were talking about the Internet as this place that was gonna be raceless; there was not gonna be race there, there wasn’t gonna be gender there, because we were gonna escape embodiment. It was about that time, I had already written my first book that looked at white supremacists
in printed publications. It was about that time I had started noticing on the Internet, ’cause I like to tinker
and fool around with stuff, and I was on the Internet
in the early days, and I was like, “Oh, these people I
studied in the printed page “are now here on the Internet.” It was the early days. And so at the very moment
when John Perry Barlow and other people like that were declaring the raceless Internet, and some of you may
remember the MCI commercial from about that time about utopia that made the same argument, the white supremacists were
already on the Internet. And they created a
place called Stormfront, which you may have heard of, which was a white supremacist portal. But more disturbing, and
more pernicious than that, they were also prescient, in that they registered the
domain name martinlutherking.org in the ’90s. And at that site, put up what looked to be, like
maybe some kids created it, like a tribute site to Dr. King. But if you scrolled all the way to the bottom of that webpage, which about 85% of us never ever do, you would see that there
was a link to Stormfront, the overtly white supremacist portal. And I first discovered that
at a college computer lab with my students, because a student had
typed in Martin Luther King into a search engine. It was before Google, so it was probably Alta
Vista or something like that. But that’s where they ended up. The first time we went into
the computer lab, right? So the point of this whole thing is that white supremacists are, what I call, innovation opportunists. They’ve been there all along
in Internet technologies, and they’ve been always
looking for ways to exploit and make use of that technology for their own ideological ends. At the same time, you have a technology industry that’s wedded to the kind of
John Perry Barlow ideology of like, it’s raceless. And so you have this result, where Mark Zuckerberg is sitting there testifying against one question, a very well crafted question, about white supremacy on the Internet, and he’s like, “Uh,” drink
of water, “I don’t know.” Like, he has no clue. He has no way, he has no language, to even respond to that. So I mean, I think it’s
where we are right now. (audience applauding) – Let’s talk a little bit now about how each of you
sees the very concept that I know undergirds
your activism, and mine. And that is intersectionality. Let’s talk a little bit, not by leaving race and racism, but by asking to what extent the absence of an intersectional analysis may hinder our struggle against racism? – Yeah, I’d like to jump on in. I have a few thoughts (chuckling). You know, I come up through organizing, through Southerners Underground, which was started by three black lesbians and three white lesbians, who had been doing and
working in various movements as out lesbian women at
various points through, I believe one of the oldest
founders now was around 80. So seeing black women,
black lesbian women, some organize for example, on the side of the
Combahee River Collective, which is writings that even now, SONG, we’re like, “Oh, you’re
a member of our organization, “and you ain’t read the Combahee? “You need to read the Combahee!” You know? And deeply understood that no only are lockers interconnected, and the experiences we have at these intersections are connected, but the systems of
oppression are connected. And the thought was, if
we can get that clear, then when we go to fight, we’re not gonna throw another
community under the bus. When we go to declare a win, or when we go to say, “These are the things we want
changed in our communities,” we’re gonna see our lives just
as connected to the person who was undocumented and
may not be able to vote, just as well as the person who is a third shift factory worker, connected to the drag queen doing a show, you know what I mean, at the bar. And our work is to be able
to make those connections, and build work, and
create campaigns and work, that allow people to
work across community. It’s gonna have to get
really uncomfortable. And so I think that any struggle that doesn’t look and see our fight though an intersectional lens, we still run the risk of
embodying the individualism, and embodying the patriarchy. Obviously folks are
doing their internal work to rid ourselves of all the mess that this country has poured into us, but I think it’s also about
how we draw the lines, and how we created shared values around some things are just not okay. And I think had perhaps Garvey, or perhaps many leaders of our past had an intersectional approach to the ways in which we
saw liberation and freedom, you wouldn’t have
transwomen right now saying, “Where y’all been? “And why have we been pushed out? “And why are we still
getting kicked in the teeth, “and nobody’s saying or
doing anything about it?” You know, we wouldn’t have
women having to struggle around reproductive justice. Like no, ’cause we
would have been clocking and naming those things. But I think the disconnect too, and one of the things that I’ve always understood and learned, that part of black feminist
thought and ideology also made it clear that
the personal is political. And so where other movements was like, “Yo, don’t bring that personal stuff. “We don’t wanna hear about
your gender, your sexuality. “We’re here about economic justice!” We’re like, “No baby, no.” ‘Cause all of those things are
important to my liberation, and all of our liberation. We must be thinking about those things when we’re thinking about
freedom and solutions. And so I think that if
we continue to operate outside of that analysis, and you don’t have to be
a black queer feminist to be and understand black
queer feminism and practice it, it’s an ideological decision that folks have to be willing
to not only transform here but also practice in our daily lives. And unless we’re willing to do that, it’s gonna be 20 years later, and we gonna have folks saying, you know, “We looked at the movements
of the 20, 20,000, whatever, “and y’all totally forgot about us. “Y’all totally threw us under the bus. “You totally threw folks with
violent offenses under the bus “for the sake of those who were like, “‘These are just nonviolent.'” And I would say, and
I’m gonna wrap this up, but I think it’s important to name. We were in Gwinnett County, Georgia, which has the fifth
highest deportation rates in the country; number one in Georgia. And there were folk in
there who were saying, and these were white folks, white dudes, carrying guns,
who came to scare folk. Was like, “We’re talking
about the violent ones, “the violent ones have to leave.” And there were white women who were like, “Yeah, the violent ones gotta go!” And I said, “If we don’t think about this “through an intersectional lens.” I didn’t say that word in there, not really the audience, you feel me? (audience laughing) But I was like, “If we don’t
see our lives are connected, “we have a problem. “But let’s just be honest, women, “and let’s center a conversation
about women right now. “Let’s be honest about
gender based violence. “And we’re talking about violence. “Honey, 1/7 of y’all is sleeping
with the enemy every night. “Are you trying to deport him?” You know what I mean? And so I think we have to just have a different conversation about violence. And it may not be splintered
around race, class, gender, et cetera, et cetera. I think it’s gonna be
splintered through violence, and how we understand violence
and how it’s manifesting, and what we do to
address harm and violence in a way that doesn’t isolate people. ‘Cause then, again, we continue to get carceral
solutions, you know? (audience applauding) – I mean, I think when we saw… I’m sorry. – [Johnnetta] No, if
you can make it concise. – Really concise. When we saw that conversation between Mark Zuckerberg and the ALC, the presumption was the only one of them had an intersectional identity. And people were looking at ALC, but they were not looking
at Mark Zuckerberg. And the wealthy background
that produced him, the Harvard pedigree, the fact that the ultimate
achievement of Harvard is not to graduate.
(audience chuckling) – [Johnnetta] Oh! – And so, because it’s
superfluous at that point. Or Silicon Valley. Or him being white, and him being male. And that we don’t think
about those things. And to the extent that we
don’t think about those things, we wind up thinking that ALC
is the one that has a problem, not understanding how it is that a set of intersecting
identities could produce a person who is among the richest
people in the world, and is completely unconcerned
about creating something that may ultimately
damage, if not destroy, the potential of American democracy. (audience applauding)
(audience cheering) – I just wanna register my complaint, that whoever organized this
gave us insufficient time. (audience laughing) As a way of wrapping up, I’m gonna ask each of you to look out at these sisters
and brothers, these siblings, and say what is it that you ask, better yet charge, folk to do, that might begin, let’s just begin with raise awareness, around the contradiction
between racism in this country, and voicing that this is a democracy. – I’m not gonna answer
that question exactly, but I’ll start. So as an activist, and as somebody who
grew up as an activist, I know to walk away with a tangible, easy ask of my audience. And so I have two that are practical, that are not theoretical,
that are not futuristic, but that you can do, that you
can engage with and in now. One, on the 12th of November, the Supreme Court is hearing the case that will determine the
future of the DACA program. 700,000 young people in our country, who have done nothing but be American, who are at threat of deportation if the Supreme Court determines to overturn the Federal Court rulings after the Trump administration
tried to end the program. 30,000 of those young people
live right here in our city. So one ask is that if you’re
around this Saturday at 12pm, there will be a rally in Battery Park were 30 impacted Dreamers and temporary protected status families will begin a march from
New York City to DC, in anticipation of that oral argument. And I think coming out
and showing solidarity, making their voices heard,
sharing their stories, is something that we all need to be doing to ensure that there’s no scenario where the Supreme Court can
come out and threaten to deport and terrorize these
children, Dreamers, any more. (audience applauding) Two, the census is coming up. Census begins in mid-March of 2020. It would have been hard enough already to get a complete count; it’s cross-sectional, intersectional, undercounted communities, as I said, black, brown, immigrant, elderly, children under the age of five. It is a time to get organized. The city has a program called “NOCs,” a fun play on the word, but Neighborhood Organizing Committees. And if you wanna get trained on how to educate your neighbors, your coworkers, you loved ones, on what the census is, why it matters, what the privacy and
security protections are, and how they can get counted, you can participate in the NOCs program, and get out the vote, get out the count. And make sure that we are
really seeing our communities counted in the census.
– Thanks, thanks. Jessie, what are you gonna ask folk to do? – Well, I’ve been talking a lot lately about racial literacy. And I think we need to get
smarter about race in a hurry, and there are three things,
from my perspective, that racial literacy is composed of. One is cognitive, you
can educate yourself. Read a memoir by a person of
color, watch a documentary, do something to educate yourself. The second thing is learn to deal with
the emotions around race. When we deal with race in this country we are in racially stressful events, and we have to learn
how to deal with that. And if talking about race, probably no one in this room
is uncomfortable about it, ’cause you’re in this room already. But if talking about race makes you emotionally uncomfortable, you have to deal with
processing those emotions, and learn how to process that. And then third, you have to
make a commitment to action, whether that action is changing yourself, or changing the
organization that you’re in, you have to do that. And for me, as somebody
who identifies as queer, and has learned to look at white supremacy from outside of nuclear families, I just wanna say that
sometimes changing yourself is the most important place
to start with those changes, and then you can begin to
change organizations around you. And just on the white families thing, like Mary was talking about earlier, like what are the circles that we draw. If you’re drawing a
circle around yourself, and your family, and your friends, that are only white people. If you look at your networks, if you look at your Facebook friends, and those are only white people, I encourage you to rethink
how you’re doing your life. Because you are doing something that is perpetuating white supremacy, and that goes to passing on white wealth. If you’re in a white family and you’re passing on your
wealth to your white children, you are part of the problem. (audience applauding) – [Johnnetta] Jelani. – I think there’s a long list. – [Johnnetta] A long list
and a few minutes to give it. – But a few minutes to give it. But you always talk about contributing your time, talent, and treasure. And I think that the most crucial thing, really, at this point in time, is for us to be prepared to be organized, for us to be prepared to be active, and for us to prepare, if
necessary, to be in the streets. And the reason I say that is that everything that’s
happening in our politics is really very much calibrated by the kind of social temperature. And we’re seeing things on the right that are indicating that no
matter what the facts indicate, that no matter what findings they have, no matter how grievous the offense is, that they will be intractable in defense of a criminal
and corrupt administration. I think it is crucial that
people are in the streets, that people keep pressure
on their elected officials. We have seen a very kind
of wavering commitment to pursuing this course of
justice in the first place, and I think that for people
who are progressive minded, or people who have any
sense of conscience, there has to be an awareness that we will not tolerate idly, the corruption and demise
of the extent of democracy that we have achieved in
this country right now. – Well put, well put.
(audience applauding) Sister Mary, you got it. – Just that bit of time. But luckily time tied
talent was already named, ’cause that’s usually my go-to, so good. I think second, one of the
things that we must do, and be intentional about choosing, courage over fear. Like, it’s just decision-making time. Who you wanna be. Who you want your
grandkids to say you were. Like, what do you want them
to read at your funerals. What is the things that
we wanna hold value. Like, what is the legacy
that we wanna be a part of? So I think that it’s decision-making. And I would say another thing, and you were talking
about the NOCs program, but we gonna have to get comfortable with everybody around us. Raise your hand already if you’re like, “I know my neighbors and
we rock hard together.” Some of us. All of us, all of us. Okay, more slowly.
(audience calling out) We have to build
relationships with each other, block by block, neighbor to neighbor, seeing ourselves as connected. Building and taking the time
to deepen our relationships, be able to struggle together, and find where we can be aligned, and then be able to say what
do we wanna do with that power? And how do we wanna govern ourselves? And how do we wanna hold ourselves accountable to each other? And so I think there’s a
way in which, you know, we need to go hard on
these elected officials and all the things, but real power starts in the smallest way, in the smallest nucleus, if you will, and continue to broaden a circle. And I think just something that movement has been talking about, I don’t know if y’all
are talking about it, but we’re like, “Y’all, “Trump said that he not gonna leave. “He said he ain’t gonna leave. “So we need to be doing
some scenario planning. “We need to know who gonna take an L. “We need to know who gonna
be ready to sit for a while “and can do a bid.” So we need to be doing
some scenario planning, and really thinking about to what extent are we willing to go to the mat for this land? Not necessarily this country, but this land, and the folk… Okay, I’ll stop there.
(audience chuckling) – All right.
(audience applauding) Now, (speaking in foreign language). The microphones will move, we have how many minutes Karen? Let’s hear from you. Questions? All right, I see you Professor Blanche. But we need a microphone to come to you. – [Professor Blanche] Thank
you so much, this was fabulous. And I wanna ask you, Johnnetta, Professor, President, our President. You ask great questions, but I wanna know, what
are some of your answers, especially to that last question. – I think the quickest way I can respond is to say that I ask of each
of you what I ask of myself. And that is, and I have
to do this every day, where can I put my outrage? (audience applauding) Where can I put it so
that it does something other than allow me to be outraged? And so I’m suggesting do different
things on different days. But it’s gonna take more than outrage. – [Woman] Thank you to the entire panel. My question is about today’s youth, and it seems like not a day goes by when you don’t hear about
kids at some high school using the N word, hanging nooses on trees, writing swastikas everywhere, et cetera. And I’m wondering, first, what the bleep is going on with that? What are parents doing in this day and age to teach children? And is it, I wouldn’t say is
it just a symptom of, again, the occupant in the White House, and the regime, you
know, the current regime, and the amplification of these
voices over social media? And is this, at all, if not reversible, but something we can mitigate? Thanks. – Who wants to respond? Jessie?
– Yeah, I’ll take it. Yeah, I mean I think that, I mean, Mary’s work speaks to
the counter to that question, which is that there are young people who are not hanging nooses on trees, and not engaged in the kind of activity that you talked about. But, the reality is
that young people today, most young people grow up
with a mediated experience. They grow up experiencing the
world through the Internet, through social media, and that shapes their worldview. And the thing that, like people talk about
Twitter or Facebook, that doesn’t really apply to young people, they’re not on those. What they’re doing is
they’re playing video games. And the video game culture is one, it’s not so much about the shoot-’em-up, but it’s about the discourse, the conversation that’s happening while people are playing the video games. And that is a fertile
ground for white supremacy, and much of it by design. Like, the people who have
designed those video platforms, video gaming platforms, are, some of them, avowed neo-Nazis. And are trying to cultivate a culture in which young people find
white supremacist ideology a perfectly acceptable set
of ideas to talk about. So what’s happening with parents? I mean, you know, some parents are trying to have these conversations with their kids. But you know, I get this
question from journalist a lot, like, “What’s going on
with people being recruited “into white supremacy online?” It’s like, that word does not
mean what you think it means. Like, recruited is not
the right word here. What’s happening is radicalization, but it’s radicalization into the core ideas of the democracy. It’s radicalization into the
ideas of Thomas Jefferson. So if you’re a parent, and you want to talk to your children because you’re afraid that
they’re being radicalized into white supremacy, you’re gonna have to have a
very sophisticated conversation about Notes on the State of Virginia, about Thomas Jefferson, about the 1619 Project. You know, like you’re gonna
have to be talking about slavery and what that means that it was in the founding
documents of this nation. And quite frankly, most parents are not equipped to have a nuanced discussion about racism, with their children or anyone else. (audience applauding) – Can you stand? Right there, please. Hold on, we have a mic coming. – [Woman] I fear that
something really important, and very new was left out of
tonight’s fabulous discussion. Racism is not just an issue
of black and white anymore. Racism is against Jews. And we all know, I mean this is the weekend
remembrance of the massacre, the temple massacre. And I’m not in any way diminishing the lack of true democracy as a result of the constant bigotry against black people in this country. But it’s become so much, the
idea of racism and bigotry, has become so much broader, because we now have a whole new people, and they’re white, for the most part, and they’re called Jews. I think a discussion like
this needed to include that. I think I heard the word
once in the very beginning, and then it disappeared. And one other very important thing. When you say parents, most parents, don’t have the qualification to talk to their children about racism, we have a tremendous amount
of schooling in this country. We have now very little education. And if the teachers and the
curriculum can’t do the job, and the parents can’t do the job, then who the (clearing throat)
is going to do the job? And I think those are matters that needed to be addressed as well. So for next time guys (laughing). Okay, thank you. – I think it is important for us to get some language straight here, and to have some responses. Jelani, do you wanna begin? – Yeah, I covered the massacre that happened at the
Tree of Life a year ago, I was there. I flew in, I think the
day after it happened. I also covered Charleston. And one of the interesting
things that happened was the people in Charleston
were retraumatized by what happened in Pittsburgh, and they understood intimately that the same sorts of forces that were responsible for the death of nine people in Charleston, were responsible for the death
of 11 people in Pittsburgh. And even more succinctly, if you look at Robert Bowers
and what his thinking was, he was motivated by, not
just one kind of hatred. He targeted Jews, because he believed that
they were conspiring to bring more people of
color into the country. And so it was a kind of
omnibus version of racism, a kind of grab bag collection of hatreds. And so I think that one of
the things I’ve been saying, and I think that it deserves
a place in this conversation. One of the things I’ve been
saying to people since 2015, and since it’s become really apparent, is that the people who hate some of us generally hate the rest of us. (audience applauding) And this has come as a
surprise to a lot of people. And kind of the
conversations that we have, it has never been more crucial that we have an understanding that people who understand
racism understand sexism. Because the person who
refused to rent apartments to people of color, also said that he would
grab women by their vaginas; this is the same person. That we have an understanding
of ableism and disability, because that person was able to ridicule a reporter with a disability, and suffer no consequences for it. That this person was able
to have Steve Bannon, the noted antisemite,
as a Chief Strategist. That what we were seeing was, essentially, The Avengers of Bigotry (laughing). It was like, let’s put
together an all star squad of various people who hate people for reasons that have nothing to do with who they actually are, but for the most superficial
reasons that we can gather, and then we’ll be together in this kind of agenda of wrongdoing. And so I think that it’s very
crucial that we say that, I almost think that it’s important. And I also would say just very quickly that the history of
antisemitism in this country is much, much, much older than what happened in Squirrel Hill. And even if we’re going
back to the bombing of the synagogue in Atlanta, which was again, the synagogue in Atlanta was bombed because people believed
that the Jews of Atlanta were too friendly with the negros seeking civil rights in 1958. That we find this again
and again and again, the history tells us this, that these movements to marginalize and impair the rights of
any group of individuals will generally seek the
next group of individuals to do it to as well. (audience applauding) – Well my sisters, my
brothers, my siblings all. We do have an enemy, it’s called time. (audience laughing) And what we’re gonna suggest is that you not leave immediately, unless you really must. But that you continue this conversation, and that you do so, if you
would like a glass of wine, if not, I’m sure there’s bubbly water. But it’s too rich, what has happened here, it’s too important, especially since our lives, and those of the next
generations, depend on it. So we’re gonna say we’re
closing only to continue. Thank you so much for being here. (audience applauding)

2 Comments on "Racism and Democracy"


  1. Marvellous Job, I Liked it a lot, See this New Album 'Monish Jasbird – Death Blow', channel link www.youtube.com/channel/UCv_x5rlxirO-WKjLIyk6okQ?sub_confirmation=1 , you can try 🙂

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  2. People who want to make hate speech illegal, are killing each other. It is an escalation when speech is met with force. The people who want hate speech outlawed are escalating things amongst themselves. Just like blacks are more likely to be convicted of a hate crime, blacks will be more likely to be convicted of hate speech. Blacks are 8% of the population. Therefore they make up 8% of juries. If there is a disagreement about whether something is hate speech, juries will make the decision.

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